Communication within friendship is important for human development throughout life. Beginning in childhood, friendships shape and reflect developments in social cognition, perspective-taking abilities, moral comportment, and cooperation as equals. During adolescence and younger adulthood, friendships cultivate ethical sensibilities, and understandings and practices of intimacy, identity, and sociability. Across life people describe three benefits of close friendship: somebody to talk to; to depend on and rely on for instrumental help, social support, and caring; and to have fun and enjoy doing things with. Communication with friends relieves loneliness and contributes to physical and psychological well-being.
Despite consistent features, changes occur in the communication of friends across developmental periods due to differences in persons, their gender, concrete socio-cultural circumstances, and opportunities for and actual participation in friendship. Friendships persist to the extent that individuals treat each other in mutually fulfilling ways, according to shared definitions of required contact, evaluative standards, and appropriate actions. The interaction of friends helps us understand inherently valued communicative practices, as well as how and why people negotiate voluntary, free-standing allegiances with others or include a “friendship component” in diverse personal and social bonds including those with spouses, parents, siblings, children, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens.
Nature and Types of Friendship
Robust friendships take time to develop and maintain, and the time available for friends fluctuates depending on the simultaneous demands of other normatively sanctioned relationships and commitments – such as school, family, and extra-curricular activities during youth; and career, family, and community ventures during adulthood. Despite their fundamental reliance upon private negotiation for continued existence, friendships are highly patterned culturally and contextually. While the ideals of friendship include free choice, personalized responsiveness to others’ intrinsic qualities, and equality, mutuality, and affection, actual patterns of friendship reflect social stratification and economic disparities (Rawlins 1992).
Gender-linked differences in friendship have been identified across life although they lessen in males’ and females’ closer and more enduring bonds (Monsour 2002). In general, females learn and practice emotionally supportive and personally involving friendships, termed a “communal” style, earlier in life than males. Women more frequently describe sustained attachment with close same-sex friends throughout their lives, even when married and working. Males typically describe their first intimate friendships somewhat later than females, and fewer males mention close same-sex bonds across life. Male friendships are typically not as disclosive, emotionally involving, or affectionate as female dyads. Whereas female friendships emphasize interwoven lives and extensive self-disclosure, male bonds feature autonomy and activity-orientation, termed an “agentic” style, with married men often relying primarily on their wives for intimacy and close friendship. Depending on the socio-cultural circumstances of their earlier lives and adult relationships, women or men may develop friendships of either style or combining their attributes.
Children’s capacities to communicate with friends develop over the first 15 years of life, reflecting a dialectical interaction of cognitive abilities and concrete social experiences. Changes occur at somewhat different rates for particular children on the basis of their specific aptitudes, gender, and experiences. In contrast to surface perceptions of friends’ observable features and possessions, children develop a psychological appraisal of friends’ personal qualities. In the early to middle elementary school years, young persons typically choose friends of their age and gender, who share their physical characteristics and enjoy doing the same activities together (Smollar & Youniss 1982). Over time, discussions of subjective thoughts and feelings supplement talk about common activities or items. From a materialistic, object-centered basis for interaction, later childhood friendships evolve an intersubjective, person-centered core.
During the later years of elementary school, self-oriented and one-sided views of incidents between friends shift to mutually derived conceptions of interactions, emphasizing interdependence, shared experiences, and goals. Children learn how to see matters from their friends’ and society’s perspectives as well as their own (Selman 1981). The potential of peer friendships to comprise distinctive, mutually negotiated, moral spheres begins to emerge. For much of childhood, young persons must adapt themselves to patterns of interaction primarily determined by adults and older siblings. In contrast, friendships and peer interactions involve the collaborative and cooperative development of procedures for interacting between equals who lack the power to impose preferences unilaterally. The reciprocal exchange and perspective-taking necessary for such collaboration tend to enhance children’s sensitivity to others and their capacity for expressing and experiencing affection with an equal. A transitory conception of social relationships converts into an awareness of their endurance over time.
By early adolescence, around ages 12–14, young persons typically have developed the rudiments of friendship. Friends are equals deserving sensitivity and fair treatment; they reciprocally help and share with one another and may cultivate intimacy through personal discussions. Even so, friendships remain nested in same-sex cliques that exert strong conformity pressures and preferences for similar others.
Adolescent friendships transpire within the interconnected worlds of family, peers, school, and the larger society. Friendships provide contexts for learning about intimacy, developing one’s identity and sense of personal values, gaining autonomy from one’s family of origin, and dealing with multiple social orders and systems of evaluation (Youniss & Smollar 1985). In managing ethical issues and behavioral choices, young friends rehearse the moral alternatives of adult friendships. Adolescents learn that they are judged by the company they keep and their objective achievements; there are both societal and intimate constructions of self.
While pursuing the goals and expectations of self, family, school, and peers, adolescents negotiate various types of friendships across a continuum of personal and social domains. Since tensions between private knowledge and public exposure of self are fundamental concerns, adolescents are preoccupied with trust and confidence in their “true” or close friendships, which mediates their selection of friends and their distinctions among them (Rawlins 1992).
In their private discussions friends learn how to co-construct and respect discretionary boundaries between each other as well as between their friendship and other people. Importantly, friendships require an investment of self in their own production and articulation, and one’s choices of friends comprise significant judgments. Along with their possibilities for enhancing each individual’s sense of personal identity, adolescent close friendships can embody pro-social values and social responsibility and serve as a foundation for egalitarian relationships in adulthood (Berndt 1996).
The developments of puberty and sexual urges complicate adolescents’ feelings of affection. Participants and third parties may second-guess the caring experienced in same-and cross-sex friendships, viewing friendly feelings as possibly veiling sexual interests. How same-or cross-sex friends are treated once dating begins is a significant concern. Over time, culturally endorsed gender differences, and ideologies and practices of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and romantic love, transform the young person’s entire social arena.
Friendships in Younger Adulthood
During young adulthood persons explore the roles their friendships will play in adult life. Developmental tasks include preparing for and entering the adult world of work, developing personal relationships of varying degrees of intimacy and commitment, and integrating one’s identity. Friends may provide crucial input regarding one’s education, career options, romantic relationships and/or marriage, community involvement, and recreational activities. Individual and negotiated decisions regarding such matters influence self-conceptions and begin to articulate networks of human relationships within which one’s values and priorities are continuously enacted. Simultaneously, these pursuits also generate constraints shaping the forms and functions of one’s friendships at any juncture, owing to their contingent status and reliance on voluntary effort for continued existence.
Moral visions and friendship practices that transcend gender may thrive but also persistently align themselves with gender divisions. Consciously or not, normative roles and codes enacted in the workplace and associated by both sexes with marriage and raising children can reinforce these disparities. Consequently, the ways in which friendships are managed, the bases for distinctions among friends, and the overall significance of friendship in an adult’s social world are strongly indicative of that person’s self-defining values. Work settings may embody values that compete with the ideals of close friends as well as separate them in time and place. Marriage may introduce the couple as the unit of friendship, with compatibility now a matter of two pairs of people getting along. The ironic functions of friendships during young adulthood involve mutual enjoyment while helping each other make life decisions, which ultimately may constrict the opportunities for involvement with friends.
The adult years involve ongoing trials and impediments, which are socio-economically and culturally patterned although not strictly tied to age. Consciously and unconsciously, friends are sorted out, with social calendars, role commitments, and career moves functioning as both facilitators and disqualifiers of friendships (Matthews 1986). Negotiating busy schedules, physical separation, and friendship’s voluntary and conditional standing in their role clusters, many adults’ bonds persist because of the flexibility of their friendships. The friendship of spouses may assume importance during mature adulthood if or as they replace role-related perceptions of each other with an appreciation of each other’s independence, companionship, and shared life experiences (Rawlins 1992). Work settings also persist as sources of friendships for women and men at least until retirement. Friends who have stood these “tests of time” and circumstances assume special status, and close friendships increase in stability across the life course.
Friendships in Older Adulthood
As reservoirs of shared histories and experiences, old friends are narrators and curators of the long-term coherence and significance of each other’s lives. In contrast, throughout life, new friends foster and reflect change and adaptation to altered conditions, while also being implicitly compared with a person’s “populated biography” of past relationships (Matthews 1986). Talking and judging with trusted friends gets the weighty matters of adulthood off of a person’s chest, helps articulate the meaning and implications of actions and choices, jointly establishes what is important to self and affected others, and provides nurturance and enjoyment to keep life’s challenges and tragic inevitabilities in perspective. Later adult friendships exhibit continuities and discontinuities with earlier patterns and normative contours evident across the life course. Friends are close enough in age to share analogous generational experiences; and they are usually alike in race, gender, and marital and occupational status, all of which promote comparable lifestyles and values. Modal gender differences in friendship activity are also evident in later life. Even so, friendship profiles remain diverse across this developmental period for many reasons. First, the period spans several decades. People also enact disparate personal styles, decisions, and initiatives in conducting their social lives. Friendship in later adulthood involves sustained connection with select individuals, consecutive sets of friends associated with changing residences and social circumstances, or a pattern of preserving certain long-term friendships as well as developing new ones as personal situations alter (Matthews 1986). Areas of diminishing individual control, such as persons’ social capabilities, health, and mobility, as well as friends’ proximity, abilities to interact, or mortality, become salient at varying junctures and are associated with continuities and discontinuities in friendship practices.
Functions, strains, and assortments of friendships persist in later life. Despite their limitations, friends typically play vital roles in sustaining older persons’ feelings of wellbeing and life satisfaction. As long as personal capacities and situational factors allow, people turn to friends to talk about a wide range of topics, confide in and relate troubles, enjoy spending time together, and rely on for assistance and moral support. Contacting and being contacted by friends alleviates loneliness, connects individuals to larger communities, and fosters their ongoing enjoyment of life.
- Berndt, T. J. (1996). Exploring the effects of friendship quality on social development. In W. M. Bukowski, A. E. Newcomb, & W. W. Hartup (eds.), Friendship in childhood and adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 346 – 365.
- Matthews, S. H. (1986). Friendships through the life course: Oral biographies in old age. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Monsour, M. (2002). Women and men as friends: Relationships across the life span in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Rawlins, W. K. (1992). Friendship matters: Communication, dialectics, and the life course. Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Selman, R. L. (1981). The child as a friendship philosopher. In S. R. Asher & J. M. Gottman (eds.), The development of children’s friendships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 242 – 272.
- Smollar, J., & Youniss, J. (1982). Social development through friendship. In K. H. Rubin & H. S. Ross (eds.), Peer relationships and social skills in childhood. New York: Springer, pp. 279 – 298.
- Youniss, J., & Smollar, J. (1985). Adolescent relations with mothers, fathers, and friends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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